The polls have not been kind to President Trump, whose approval rating has declined since he took office despite his boasts that everything is great. To get behind the numbers and understand why some voters are losing faith in Trump, veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart, under the auspices of Emory University, assembled a focus group in Pittsburgh Tuesday evening with half Donald Trump voters, half Hillary Clinton voters to explore attitudes about immigration and Trump’s cherished border wall with Mexico, along with their thoughts on how Trump conducts himself as a leader.
Asked to compare Trump to a shiny new car that they were all excited about 200 days ago and are now discovering isn’t running very well, one woman said it was like being promised a Cadillac Escalade that turned out to be a pickup truck with a gun rack on the back. “Unsafe at any speed,” said one man, hearkening back to Ralph Nader. “Dentally ill,” quipped another man, playing off the theoretical car’s dents to take a slap at Trump’s mental state. “I don’t want to say he’s fatally flawed, but it’s not running the way it should.”
What was amazing is that these slurs against Trump did not incite a riot in the room. That’s because they came in equal measure from the Trump voters, who were college educated and drawn to Trump because he’s a businessman and he wasn’t Hillary, and Clinton voters. Only David, a high school graduate who works in construction, rated Trump “great.” He said he did so because business is good. When pressed he said, “His learning curve has not been impressive.”
These Trump voters are disappointed. It’s less about policy than Trump’s personal behavior in leveling personal attacks on people, and his prolific tweeting. One woman, Christina, who is in her forties and works as an administrative assistant for a pharmaceutical company, said, “We knew he was a nut—everyone knew he was a nut.” But she figured that once he was elected, he could at least become “professional” in his conduct, her word for the widespread expectation that once he was president, Trump would ipso facto be presidential.
“What’s taken my breath away,” declared Hart, who had anticipated fireworks between the Trump and Clinton factions, “I’m looking at a half dozen of you, and I haven’t heard any defense of Donald Trump. Why aren’t you with him... What are you trying to tell him?”
Tony, who works in the insurance industry and is between 50 and 64, explained, “I’m not part of his base. It was an anti-Hillary vote... but it wasn’t eeny, meny, miny, moe. I leaned a lot to Trump.”
These Trump voters in Pittsburgh are urban and suburban, and not part of the rural base that forms Trump’s core support. Their votes helped put Trump over the top in Pennsylvania. Brian, a sales rep in his forties, said, “I didn’t want more of what we had. It [Trump vote] was lesser of two evils.”
Hart pressed for answers. Why doesn’t he have you after the first 200 days? A president is someone who is “calm, focused,” replied a Trump voter. “He’s let me down.”
Hart asked everyone to state how long their family has been in the country, and most were long-termers, with one’s family going back to the last signer of the Declaration of Independence. There were no hardliners on immigration, and Christina, the only female Trump voter, said she imagines a “proverbial wall,” with tightened rules and regulation, “not a literal wall.”
With Trump deciding soon whether to deport the Dreamers, children brought here illegally whom President Obama exempted from deportation, Christina said, “I wouldn’t want to see any national guard taking thousands of people away from their loved ones, that’s absurd. The military is not going to come in and pull people from their homes, not going to happen.”
When it was pointed out that Pittsburgh is a “sanctuary city,” and Trump has vowed to pull back federal resources, one man pointed out, “Half the Eastern European waitresses you get at Market Square are illegal.” Another respondent doubted Trump had the power to cut funds to Pittsburgh, calling it “another one of Trump’s oopsies.”
Asked how they would fix America’s immigration problem, one man said, “Find a way to make undocumented workers become documented workers and pay taxes.”
Trump’s pardon of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio did not raise major hackles. A male Trump voter said he doesn’t like the guy, but he operates in a very dangerous area, and we need to “parse” between immigration and illegal immigration, “which isn’t immigration, it’s lawbreaking.” A Clinton voter immediately countered with, “When they’re here already raising their children and working, to deport them is a crime all its own.” Both statements had support in the room.
The issue of Russia and Putin never came up, and Hart did not raise it. In a series of round robins on what they knew about certain officials, the responses were revealing. Vice President Pence: “non-existent, puppet, waiting in the wings”; chief of staff John Kelly, “strong, reliable, finger in dyke”; Speaker Paul Ryan: “floats in the wind, opportunist.”
At the mention of special counsel Robert Mueller’s name, except for one audible, “Hurry up,” others passed, saying they didn’t know who he was, or didn’t know enough to comment.
Over the two hours of the focus group, no one really defended Trump, but his voters haven’t totally given up on him. Christina had watched Trump on television in Texas earlier that day, and she expressed hope “that should give him some sort of humanization,” seeing people come together and that he would “take advice from that perspective.”
No one said they regretted their vote. “He is our president until and if he gets impeached,” said Tony. “I wouldn’t change my vote.”
After the session, Hart made several points, among them that Trump had the perfect foil in Hillary Clinton, someone voters had problems with “looking down on people, instead of looking out for people.” Hart said he was struck by how personally upset and disappointed the Trump voters were with what Trump said he would have the easiest time doing—acting presidential. “What they couldn’t get past is his personal behavior.”
With these voters, it’s not policy, it’s personal. “How they see this president is more than his positions,” says Hart. “It’s how he is representing us as a leader, as the father of the country.”
Unlike presidents as different as Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, who conveyed the importance of the office with their behavior, Trump has made his presidency all about him, says Hart.
What Democrats should take away from this group of people is that the next election is less about party and more about Trump. He’s his own worst enemy, but that is not a construct that Democrats or Republicans for that matter can count on. He’s tied his fortunes for the moment to Harvey and the politics that follow around recovery and redemption. He’s a businessman, he’s drawn to rebuilding. That focus could yet save him, although “focus” hasn’t been a strength so far.